Sunday, June 15, 2008

Top Cat

Top Cat! The most effectual
Top Cat!
Who's intellectual
Close friends get to call him T.C.
Providing it's with dignity.

Yes he's a chief, he's a king,
But above everything,
He's the most tip top, Top Cat.

In September 1961, Hanna-Barbera premiered another of their primetime cartoons on ABC. Like The Flintstones, Top Cat was a hit that the whole family could watch and enjoy. Once our homework was done on Wednesday nights, we could turn on Albuquerque's Channel 7 and laugh at this gang of alley cats and their crafty leader as they tried to outwit Police Officer Dibble, but just as often ended up outwitting themselves. The show only ran for the 1961-62 television season, but it was a cultural phenomenon in its own way.

Fast forward to October 1966. My brother and I are coming out of our Scout meeting and see Dad leaning against his Renault with the engine he and I would later re-build, waiting to take us home. But as we approach, it appears that Dad has something in his hands. It is a kitten, probably not more than four weeks old and it's crying loudly. Dad says, "I found him under the car." The Scout meeting place is far from any residential areas at Sandia Base where we lived. So it's a bit of mystery as to how the kitten got out there and where his mother and the rest of the litter are.

Dad puts the kitten in my arms for the drive home and I know he's thinking what I'm thinking, "What's Mom gonna say?"

The cat is a jet black Persian-Siamese. Even at a young age, his hair is long, his eyes what we came to call "Green Bay Packer" yellow and green.

When we do get home, Mom sees me carrying the animal, and says to my father, "You are not bringing that thing in my house!" At first glance, she believes that my father has actually lost his mind and bought the monkey he often had joked about buying. The kitten is clinging to my sweater and I can see how he looks a bit like a tiny monkey. But even when she realizes it's a kitten, Mom is none too happy. My sister and brothers, however, are thrilled.

Dad explains again how he found the kitten under the car. Mom warns us against getting too attached to him, because, she says, he obviously belongs to somebody else. We'll have to put up signs and advertise to see if anyone lost a kitten. In the meantime, Mom says, he'll have to stay in the garage, not in the house. My Mom, darling of the Kansas City NAACP as a teenager, says, "When it comes to people and animals, I'm a strict segregationist!"

Predictably, the kitten cries all night for several nights and predictably, nobody comes to claim him. So Mom eventually relents and agrees that we can keep him. "What are going to call him?" Dad asks a few days later. My sister immediately says, "Top Cat!" And so begins a cat's adventures.

We had had "ornamental" pets up until then, a fish, a parakeet. Now we had a pet who took over the family. And as he grew, Top Cat transformed the neighborhood, quickly establishing himself as the Alpha animal on the block. Everybody knew "TC." In the summers, when the desrt heat reached into the triple-digits, Top Cat found a large stand of weeds across the street from the houses in the vacant mesa in which he would sleep for hours. The patch was known throughout the neighborhood as "Top Cat's Jungle." It had been formed by excess watering and perhaps a broken pipe.

In the Jungle, TC would find lizards also trying to escape the heat, and he would bring them, usually tailless or headless, home to show us.

In 1967, Top Cat suddenly disappeared from his jungle. We were certain that he would return and every day, I waited for him to show up. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and seasons, and I came slowly to accept that Top Cat was gone. It was my job to keep my siblings sagging spirits up. The other neighborhood families were similarly depressed, especially the family across the street who owned Pumpkin, an orange cat who has TC's favorite playmate.

We never talked about getting another cat because somehow that would feel disloyal to Top Cat.

Eighteen months after Top Cat disappeared, my father, then an Army major, was called for duty as a member of a court-martial panel. Several soldiers, Military Policemen in fact, were on trial for theft. What were they stealing? Pets. Yes, pets! Most of the pets they stole they sold to other families. One of the pets they had stolen was Top Cat! After the trial, Top Cat was recovered in good condition from the backyard of one of my sister's classmates--whose house we walked by every day on our way to school!

After a year and half away from home, TC returned with his same swagger and ruled the neighborhood once more. Then came a real test. My dad was ordered to temporary duty in California and we would be going along to see relatives. What about Top Cat? Well, of course, said my "strict segregationist" Mother, he'd have to come along too! And he did. The back cargo bay of the Rambler station wagon was his, complete with litter box. That mean that we couldn't use the foldup seat in the back of the Rambler, so all four children had to squeeze into the passenger seat.

Top Cat came with us on two vacation trips to California and one to Kansas City. Then when we moved permanently from New Mexico to California, he came along again. In our first house in Monterey, he loved chasing the gophers that seemed to be everywhere. After I had gone off to college, my parents moved twice more and Top Cat moved with them. Top Cat was with them when my parents took in my dying grandmother's German Shepard mix and later when they took in my brother's dog while he spent three years in Germany.

Top Cat was the cleverest pet I've known. He was fun and funny and crafty like his namesake. When he was finished playing, he would assume a regal posture on his favorite chair to let everyone know he was still in charge. By then, my mother was his biggest fan.

In December, 1983, I was a captain in the Air Force stationed in England. I came home one already dismal winter evening to find the telephone ringing. It was my mother calling from California. "We thought you'd want to know sooner rather than later . . . Top Cat passed away today . . . " And for the first and so far only time, my mother and I cried together . . . .

Dad and Top Cat in the den, c. 1980

1 comment:

wendy said...

Thanks so much for sharing your story! My first cat was TC too - except his initials stood for Tom Cat!